For a long while, it seemed that everyone in Renee Kelly's life knew she would be a chef before she did. When she was 8 and growing up in De Soto, Kansas, her brothers asked her to make homemade doughnuts.
"That was my first introduction to a grease fire. It was my very own kitchen nightmare," Kelly says.
The year she was set to graduate high school, her father, Randy Neighbors, gave her a floppy chef's hat. "What am I, going to be a chef or something?" she remembers telling him.
And after her first year as a premed student at Texas A&M, she was terrified to tell her parents that there wasn't going to be a doctor in the family. They just laughed and told her to come on home. And it was then that her dad asked if she would ever consider cooking.
Life can try to tell us where we're supposed to be; it sometimes just takes awhile to get the message. Kelly remembers the early days in the kitchen with her mom, Nancy, when she learned to cook by smell, pairing ingredients by whether they were pleasing to her nose.
She started working in restaurants at 14, attempting to sneak away from her hostess station to help with the salad and sauces prep. But the chefs would chase her out, seeing a girl instead of an inquisitive young cook. After her year at Texas A&M, Kelly enrolled at the Art Institute of Houston, in its culinary program.
"I very sternly told my parents that I had enrolled in culinary school, and there was nothing they could do about it. They laughed over the phone and said, 'What took you so long," Kelly says.
She was introduced to fine dining at the River Oaks Country Club in Houston and spent a few days in well-known kitchens around the country: Sea Pines Country Club in South Carolina and Tru in Chicago. She then was hired at a country club in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, as a sous chef.
"It was where I learned that I could actually cook. I was good and I was confident. But my eyelashes froze together while walking to work," Kelly says.
Warmer weather called, and she found a job in Sedona, Arizona. But something told her that she needed to go home. Inspired by a dinner with her mother at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, Kelly put together a business plan that focused on high-end prix fixe menus and wine tastings.
It was then that the castle became available -- Caenen Castle, built in 1905, and at various times a restaurant, a rest home and a small cavalcade of nightclubs.
"Three feet inside the door and I was sold. The energy was right somehow," Kelly says.
She had to look past the shag carpeting and an entire wall of mirrored tiles -- the '70s decor that regulars today still remember from their days before shipping off to Vietnam. She purchased the castle in 2003, taking a year and two days to renovate the space, which opened as Renee Kelly's at Caenen Castle on July 15, 2004. Back then, it was Kelly, a dishwasher and her mom.
And while she had envisioned a prix fixe menu and a series of nightly seatings, Kelly discovered that the historical rehabilitation of the stone castle meant she would be running a very different restaurant. Caenen Castle became a place where you had your wedding or celebrated an anniversary.
The young chef would be the first to tell you that she's a workaholic. So when her health began to suffer, she initially attributed it to being overworked. But when doctor after doctor failed to give her a diagnosis for what was causing her vertigo and fatigue, she began to worry. She took a year off in an attempt to discover what was wrong, and the answer was literally on her cutting board.
Kelly learned that she was allergic to all of the nightshades, which include tomatoes, potatoes and bell peppers. She also had an overgrowth of candida -- a form of yeast commonly found in the digestive tract -- that exacerbated those food allergies. By monitoring her diet, Kelly also discovered an intolerance to coffee.
"I looked at it like a blessing because as a chef, I can do more with food than as a regular person," Kelly says.
She adjusted her approach in the kitchen -- going back to the basics that she learned with her mom and using her heightened sense of smell to adjust and tweak a dish. Over the course of six months, she lost 75 pounds and discovered that other people were struggling with their health because of issues with what they were eating.
"My goals have changed from being one of the best chefs in the Midwest to being one of the most knowledgeable chefs about nutrition, who also makes good food," Kelly says.
She hopes to get her own garden started this fall in De Soto with the help of Cultivate KC (formerly the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture). And she's also at work on a book about her experiences, Crap, I Forgot How to Eat, that talks about our relationship with food and how our diets impact our health.